‘It’s wicked confusing’: Dozens of towns have not filed paperwork to receive relief funds
New Hampshire towns are allotted $112 million and are the only recipients that must submit an application to the state. (Dana Wormald | New Hampshire Bulletin)
With an Aug. 18 deadline approaching and significant money at stake, 50 towns had not filed the paperwork required to collect their American Rescue Plan payments as of Tuesday. Many said they intend to, but some, especially smaller ones without grant writers and town administrators, are hesitant, citing “onerous” reporting requirements and uncertainty about what makes a project eligible.
Columbia, home to fewer than 1,000 people, is one of them. “I think it’s wicked confusing,” said Marcia Parkhurst, the town clerk and assistant to the selectmen. “We’d appreciate an extra $75,000, but it’s just, what strings are attached and what we can do with it?” She said the town is investigating whether it can give its funding to the county for its broadband expansion project.
Meanwhile, an official in Sanbornton, which has been allotted $313,000, said town leaders hadn’t yet discussed the funding opportunity.
The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan that passed Congress in March included $1.5 billion for New Hampshire to be shared by the state, counties, cities, and towns. Half the money is arriving this year, the other half next year.
The towns, allotted $112 million of that, are the only recipients that must submit an “application” to the state, although “application” is a misnomer because the state releases the money without evaluating the proposal’s merits. Margaret Burns, executive director of the New Hampshire Municipal Association, is urging towns to apply even if they haven’t yet written a plan. Towns can return the money if they don’t choose projects by 2024, Burns said. And the eligible expenses go far beyond water, sewer, and broadband. Options range from assisting small businesses and boosting wages for essential workers to replacing lost revenue and completing tourism-related projects delayed by the pandemic.
Burns said it’s critical that towns realize that failing to submit an application by Aug. 18 means they forfeit their chance to apply next year for the second half.
“What is important for municipalities to understand is they do not need to know what they are going to spend the money on,” Burns said. “They have ample time to go through an assessment and decide what the highest use of that money is.”
If town’s do not apply, their portion will be redistributed to towns that did submit applications, Burns said. If towns decline the money, their portion goes to the state.
So far, only Dummer, allotted $29,700, has declined its money. Selectmen said the town didn’t incur COVID-19-related expenses, and one said he’d prefer not to add to the country’s deficit. “This is taxpayer money,” said Selectman Christoper Holt. “There’s really nothing we can use it on, and this country is already so far in debt.”
Danbury’s selectmen were initially reluctant to apply for their $128,350, an amount equal to about 9 percent of the town’s annual budget. “We are a very small town of about 1,100 people,” said Karen Padgett, administrative assistant to the selectmen. “Most of the uses do not apply to us, and reporting requirements are quite onerous.”
The town expanded broadband access before the pandemic, eliminating that option, and is eligible for only about $4,000 in lost revenue according to a formula that allows towns to figure a 4.1 percent growth rate. The board ultimately decided it will apply in order to preserve future options.
“We will put it in a separate account,” Padgett said. “We can hold onto the money, and this allows us to say, ‘Let’s sit on this, see what happens, and see if we get more information.’”
The unclaimed payments as of Tuesday ranged from small, like Ellsworth’s $9,000 award, to significant, such as Fremont’s nearly $490,000. Fremont Town Administrator Heidi Carlson said she’s working on the application and expects the town will use the money for road work or other infrastructure projects.
Canaan is eligible for $408,000. Town Administrator Michael Samson said he’s finalizing an application and anticipates about 90 percent of the money will be used for repairs to the water system, and 10 percent for the cost of COVID-19 vaccination and testing operations.
Newton submitted an application for its approximately $515,000 but was still investigating eligible uses as of Tuesday. Franklin will apply for its nearly $900,000 but is still deciding on projects. In Bartlett, Selectman Gene Chandler, former speaker of the House, said the funding guidelines are unclear enough that selectmen are still deciding what projects to pursue with the town’s $293,000. “We are being extra cautious trying to make sure that what we are doing meets the criteria,” he said.
At last week’s Executive Council meeting, Gov. Chris Sununu faulted the federal government, saying it had put a heavy burden on small towns. “If I may, the federal government has screwed this one up,” he said. “They have made it so onerous and so difficult. A lot of them are saying, ‘It’s too much.’ ”
Local nonprofits joined the New Hampshire Municipal Association and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen’s office to host a webinar for local officials. And some executive councilors said they are reaching out to their towns that haven’t submitted applications. Councilor Joe Kenney, a Union Republican, has asked his intern to call every town in his district that has not submitted an application.
Councilor Janet Stevens, a Republican from Rye with 31 towns in her district, said after she helped one town, others started calling for assistance. “One town official said, ‘I don’t think we qualify,’” she said. “I said, ‘You have $750,000 on the table,’ and met with the town’s leadership.”
Councilor Cinde Warmington, a Concord Democrat, said officials in some of her smaller towns considered themselves ineligible because their communities don’t have town water, sewer, or broadband. “There may be a misconception out here among a lot of our small towns,” she said.
Warmington asked Taylor Caswell, the commissioner of the state’s Department of Business and Economic Affairs, whether his office is assisting towns. Caswell acknowledged the challenges.
“I think it gets very confusing because there are multiple buckets,” he said. “There’s an infrastructure bucket that I think a lot of them are sort of hearing and focusing on, but there are other buckets that will be equally eligible on the program.”
Caswell said his office would reach out to communities, but he did not respond to a request Tuesday seeking more details about the office’s outreach.
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